The Orlando Magic’s future is catching up to them

Another disappointing defeat for the Orlando Magic showed the inconsistency of their offense and how close they are to their ceiling. The future is coming.

Final
Miami Heat
102
Orlando Magic
89

Bam Adebayo gathered a rebound beneath the basket and looked to turn the ball up court, outletting it to give the Miami Heat and advantage in transition.

Markelle Fultz was lurking and read the pass perfectly. In a flash, Markelle Fultz stepped in front of the pass going up the court and took it back the other way. He caught the defense flat-footed and finished at the basket for an and-1 finish.

There was juice in the building as the Orlando Magic stepped back onto the court. The ball moved quickly around the perimeter, weaving inside and out on instinct more than design. The ball zipped around, finding key players in rhythm without much thought.

Imperfect as it might have been, the Magic played together. Their defensive shortcomings covered up with their offensive power for a change.

The team’s future — what was left of it — was on full display.

The ball worked to Aaron Gordon in the corner for a 3-pointer, taken in rhythm without over dribbling. He cut into the lane and finished on the move rather than slowing things down to isolate or set something up.

The slow-mo Euro he started to make his signature move last year as he glided through the lane in transition at seeming half speed to freeze the defense was finally back on display.

Aaron Gordon hit four 3-pointers in the first half on his way to 24 points.

Fultz had his moments too, driving into the lane and finishing at the rim or stopping short to feed the next man or hit the short mid-range jumper.

The team in the first half of its 102-89 loss to the Heat played with the pace the team ultimately desires. Moving quickly through sets and zipping the ball around the perimeter to the open man and to the interior.

This looked like the team’s future. This looked like the way the team’s present was supposed to play.

Then it all fell apart. The ball stopped moving. The team went to its veterans in Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier to try to dig itself out. Fultz started initiating less and the offense stagnated. The team could not figure its way out.

The Magic’s defense tightened back up. But the game slowed to a crawl in the halfcourt. The team no longer had that freedom it needed to score. And every defensive mistake became amplified.

At the end of the day, Orlando was back where it started. Its offense not good enough to give its defense a chance. The margin for error too small to give the team even one tiny mistake. Especially against a quality opponent.

The Magic looked very much like the imperfect team that is good enough to be in the back-end of the playoffs but probably not much more. A team that has a bright future, but still is not ready to trust them.

A team that is again too good to be bad. A team that is clearly one of the eight best teams in the Eastern Conference. But also a team that has an undeniable ceiling. A team that has not quite found itself.

The first half of Saturday’s defeat to the Heat was a sign of just what this team could be. But what this team has not figured out how to be yet.

Orlando scored 49 points in the first half and posted a 108.9 offensive rating. It was hardly a killer offensive game. But for this Magic team, it was a team with some offensive life. If the team had played to its defensive potential, that perhaps would have fed the team’s transition game and boosted those numbers more.

For those brief moments, the Magic had some offensive life. Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier were still plenty involved. They worked to move the ball too as the offense flowed through its progressions quickly.

Then it all stopped. The Heat tightened up some of those spaces. The youth on the team started making mistakes. Some of those shots did not fall. And the Magic’s defense could not lift the team up.

This is still a team trying to put all of its pieces together. And that says something.

Too often offensively, Orlando was trying to force the ball into the post. While Vucevic certainly needs his touches and the team has to get him in the paint more often. Halting the offense to set up a post-up or a pick and roll tends to kill the offensive flow.

Orlando has trouble getting its offense unstuck. The players it turns toward to get the team moving tend to slow movement for others. And this is part of the Magic’s offensive struggles. Especially when the defense is not generating turnovers and getting stops that lead to some transition and secondary break opportunities.

The Magic are still short something.

The team was always flawed and had some serious questions to answer to build up and take the next step. At the start of the year, at least, Orlando hoped that internal improvement and familiarity would help boost the team. The team understood this is the part of the year where the Magic would have to make their run.

Orlando is not out of the playoffs. Nor should the team turn away from the playoff goal, even if the season is ultimately a disappointment. Injuries have played their part in the Magic’s struggles to find their rhythm and consistency.

But this team is staring its future in the face. The team needs to play a certain way and struggles to find the pace the team has looked for.

Gordon has regressed as he struggles to find room to move within the offense. Even players like Fournier and Vucevic who seem to catalyze the team’s stagnation with some of their actions benefit from better ball movement.

Through 48 games, the Magic have not found their offensive flow consistently. The team has certainly established some habits. And while the defense overall has played well, it too has not played to the level everyone expected.

The reality is, as the Magic depart for a three-game road trip, the trade deadline is on the horizon Thursday. The team still has its playoff goals ahead of it. But the team’s future is in focus. The front office is going to make moves if not this week then in the summer that will catalyze the team’s future.

This is not who the Magic want to be. And seeing this ceiling is a powerful tool for the front office to build its next step. Not that it will be easy.

There is an antsiness among fans, at least, to turn the team over to young players like Fultz and Gordon (and eventually Jonathan Isaac). There is at least a feeling the team has reached its ceiling. That is still a playoff team in this Eastern Conference. But the team wants to be more.

And the way to move forward is clearly with some of the young players and playing loose and free as the team did in the first half.

There are still things to iron out. The team may not shift those responsibilities fully toward other players this year. But that time is coming.

With each disappointing loss and frustrating offensive effort, the team comes closer to reckoning with its future.

Next: Grades: Miami Heat 102, Orlando Magic 89

Perhaps that time is already here.

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